Rivers of the Dead: Book Two

2~5: The Toll

Caleb wasn't convinced of what he was seeing until he reached the bottom of the path and started walking toward the small tollbooth. The guard inside the shack looked up from his magazine, a boating magazine of all things, briefly acknowledged their approach with a glance, then returned to reading.

"A toll booth," Caleb said, pulling up short. "There's a tollbooth in the afterlife."

Orpheus stopped next to him and shrugged. "For you apparently. You have an interesting way of seeing things, I suppose."

"What's the purpose of the tollbooth?" Caleb asked. "Why would the afterlife need one?"

"To open the gate, I imagine," Orpheus said, pointing ahead at the large, golden structure blocking access to the causeway. "You do see the gate, don't you? I mean, it's right in front of you."

"Yes; I see the gate," Caleb replied dryly.

Orpheus raised his hands defensively. "Hey, I can only assume. Maybe you're really blind."

Caleb glowered at Orpheus and replied, "You know, you really are an asshole."

"I get that a lot," Orpheus said. "Don't know why. I'm just doing my job."

"You could do it with less sass."

"What would be the fun in that?"

"I don't know, maybe a bit more professionalism would make people like you more."

"You're just snappy because we haven't found your lover yet," Orpheus said.

"Yeah," Caleb replied, gesturing angrily at the tollbooth and gate, "and now there's a tollbooth in the way."

"Have you considered addressing that issue?" Orpheus asked. "I don't think it's going anywhere while you stand there bitchin' about it."

Caleb groaned and approached the guard. The brown forest service uniform came with a nametag which indicated the guard's name was 'Charlie'. "Excuse me, sir?" Caleb asked.

Charlie folded the magazine carefully as he placed it next to a clipboard on the sill of his booth. "Hello. May I help you?" he asked pleasantly. Too pleasantly, like he'd done this too many times before.

"I need to get on the other side of the gate," Caleb said. "It's rather urgent."

"You've got to pay," Charlie replied. "It's the law."

Caleb reached to his right-side pocket on his backpack and pulled out his wallet. He opened it up and saw how much cash he had. There wasn't much, but hopefully it would be enough. "I have some money. How much is it?"

"Does money mean anything to you?" Charlie asked.

Caleb shook his head and answered honestly. "Not particularly."

"Then keep it." Charlie picked up his magazine with a smile that belonged to everyone who had ever worked in Customer Service. "It has no use to me if it has no use to you." He opened the magazine and started reading again, ignoring Caleb entirely.

Caleb stepped back and rejoined Orpheus. "What am I supposed to do, Orpheus?"

"Why don't you ask the nice man with the Forest Service, honey?" Orpheus said distractedly. He fingered the guitar on his back, as if considering stopping to play some jaunty tune while he waited. This only made Caleb's glare intensify.

"Some guide you are," Caleb spat. He walked back to the tollbooth and addressed Charlie again. "What can I give you to get past?"

Charlie carefully lowered the magazine, folded it shut and set it aside once more before answering, clasping his hands together like he worked at a helpdesk. "Something you prize. Something you value. Something you care about."

"I don't have anything like that," Caleb said, shaking his head.

Charlie's eyebrows raised. "Didn't they bury you with something like that? Usually people do."

"They didn't exactly bury me," Caleb replied.

"Oh. Well that seems like a bit of a problem, doesn't it?" Charlie said pleasantly. "Let me know if there's anything else I can help you with." He started to reach for the magazine again but stopped short when Caleb addressed him again.

"At least tell me what lies beyond the gate," Caleb said.

"The River Acheron," Charlie replied, gesturing behind him with his open hand toward the causeway. "We built a causeway when I got sick of running the ferry. The gate serves just as well."

Caleb nodded in new understanding. "You're Charon."

"I have been known by that name," Charlie said, bowing in acceptance of the title. "You recognize me for what I am, don't you? You must know you're dead. Which means you must have come here alive." He didn't sound surprised, more like he was simply observing the fact for what it was. He regarded Caleb curiously, but otherwise asked no further questions.

"Sounds about right," Caleb replied. "I'm here to seek an audience with The Ruler. I am trying to win back the soul of my friend."

Charlie nodded. "A noble quest, but not adequate payment to get through the gate. I tell you what, I'm able to let people in when I have a lull, if you can wait awhile."

This was welcome news, and Caleb's eyes lit up with hope. "How long?"

"Approximately a century, give or take a year," Charlie said, smiling as if he were being helpful. Caleb groaned and stepped away from the booth, and once again returned to Orpheus. He didn't know what to do now, and what made it worse was Orpheus grinning at him like he was an idiot.

"Give him the knife, you dolt," Orpheus said, laughing.

Caleb looked at Orpheus in surprise. "What?"

"The knife," Orpheus said, pointing to it on Caleb's hip. "It's the one thing that means something to you. Give him the knife."

Caleb rested his hand against the knife. He didn't want to part with it, as it made him feel secure. Not physical security, but a safety that came with a sure connection to Ethan. Still, he didn't want Orpheus to know that was the reason. "But what if I need to protect myself?" Caleb asked.

"You think a single knife is going to be much protection from a danger found in the Land of the Dead?" Orpheus asked incredulously. "You're lying to yourself. That's not why you want to give it up. You don't want to give it up because it reminds you of your lover."

It didn't matter anymore, not if Orpheus could see right through him. He gave up denying the reason for keeping it and came clean. "I don't want to forget him," he whispered. "It's all I have to remember him by."

"Then don't drink the waters of Lethe," Orpheus replied. "If you avoid that, you'll be fine."

"Lethe?" Caleb asked. "You mentioned that before, with The Warden."

"I'll explain when we reach the other side of the Acheron," Orpheus said. "Now go, give him the knife. It'll be all right."

Caleb nodded then turned and hesitated. The knife certainly meant more than he wanted to show. It connected him to Ethan in ways he couldn't entirely define. But the longer he held onto the thought, the more he felt the weight of the backpack on his shoulders. He still had the journal, a piece of Ethan's past to connect them to each other. Remembering Ethan wouldn't be much of a struggle anyway, Caleb realized bitterly. The knife was just an object.

He nodded again, firming up his resolve, and unhooked the knife sheath from his belt. He returned to Charlie, who once again put his magazine aside in careful order. Caleb handed the knife up to Charlie and said, "Here. It's . . . it's all I have."

Charlie took the knife carefully and inspected it, checking its weight in his hands and the detail on the sheath. "Yes. This'll do nicely. Before I open the gate, whom did you say you were seeking?"

"His name is Ethan Pallet," Caleb replied.

"Was he buried with something to offer?"

"I believe so."

"Was he buried the way he wished to be?"

"No. He wanted to be cremated."

"Then you might find him along the river Cocytus," Charlie replied. "It may or may not be the next river you encounter, but it is the river of lamentation, where people lament mistreatment by others in their mortal lives."

"May or may not be the next river?" Caleb asked.

"Again," Orpheus said, placing his hand on Caleb's shoulder, "I'll explain when we cross the Acheron. Come on, the gate is open now."

Caleb glanced toward the gate and saw that it had indeed begun to open, allowing access to the causeway. Before heading toward it, he turned back and said, "Thank you, Charlie."

"Certainly, Caleb," Charlie replied, then gestured with his open hand toward the gate. "Welcome to The Underworld. Enjoy your stay."

Caleb and Orpheus walked through the gate together, with Caleb only glancing back once to see that Charlie had once more resumed reading his magazine. As he glanced back, however, he saw the woman behind Orpheus, watching him with the same longing as before. He considered commenting, but then saw the same cat-eyed dogs from the cave, now sitting in front of the closing gate, barring his passage back through.

He couldn't go back. His path was forward, and he reminded himself to leave the past behind him.

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And to the haunted.

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